Every Picture Tells a Story

Article excerpt

Most Americans educated in the last half of the 20th century are familiar with the photographs taken by the early social photographers. The stark, blunt photographs of New York's poor, taken by Jacob Riis, the carefully composed and biting images of working children and Ellis Island immigrants created by Lewis Hine, and the compelling portraits of depression migrants taken by Dorothea Lange, have entered the nation's collective memory through magazines, history books, and films (Trachtenberg, 1989). Many of the more notable social photographers were also avid social reformers who worked closely with many social work pioneers.

One of the strategies commonly used by key figures in social work's history was their effective use of images. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the profession's pioneers leaned heavily on the then new technology of the camera (Squires, 1991). Early social work leaders recognized that wedding the data accumulated through their investigations and surveys to sensitive drawings and photographs made their presentations more powerful (Kellogg, 1914; Squires, 1991). However, the strong links between early social work and social photography is a piece of the profession's legacy that is in danger of being lost.

Social Photographers

Jacob Riis was a famous author and reform crusader of the 1880s and 1890s, who wrote a poignant description of life in New York's seamier tenements. Riis worked and collaborated with prominent social work reformers including Lillian Wald, Jane Addams, and Paul Kellogg (Chambers, 1971). Lewis Hine, the creator of a remarkable collection of images documenting working class life in the early 20th century, worked for both Florence Kelly at the Child Labor Committee and Kellogg at Survey, the social work journal (Gutman, 1967). Roy Stryker, head of the Farm Service Administration (FSA) photography team, worked his way through college as a settlement house resident. Hine taught Stryker how to mix images and text and Kellogg helped Stryker publicize the photographs his team was collecting (Hurley, 1972). Dorothea Lange, a prominent social photographer of the 1930s, was the daughter of a social worker and the wife of a relief official (Curtis, 1989). Consequently, she was well aware that her work with "dust bowl" migrants was a powerful reform tool. Her photographs of the rural refugees were largely responsible for the creation of public services to help these people (Time-Life, 1972). Lange's (1936) early work with migrants was published in Survey Graphic and she continued to contribute photo essays for that publication throughout the decade (Curtis, 1989).

By the general definitions of their day, some of the early social photographers were social workers. Ironically, the names of even the leading social photographers are far better known in photography than in social work (Guimond, 1991). This situation needs to be changed. Not only did these individuals play important roles in social work's history, their work exemplified how social work can make its contemporary campaigns more effective through the use of images. What follows is a brief examination of the contributions of some early social photographers who were closest to social work and who believed that their reform impulses were as much a part of their photographs as were their skills at composition and printmaking (Goldberg, 1991).

Jacob Riis - Camera Crusader (1849-1914)

A man cannot be expected to live like a pig and vote like a man.

- Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis was a reformer and a pioneer in the field now known as documentary photography. He began using photography in the late 1880s to accompany his descriptions of the sordid conditions in the slums of New York City (Riis, 1890). He took photographs for only 10 years and claimed he was awkward with the techniques of photography. Many say his images project a power and sense of intimacy that is unique (Alland, 1974). …

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